An Introduction to Effective Altruism

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Most people want to create positive change in the world, but just like everything, there are more effective ways to do good. Effective altruism is all about using a resource to its fullest potential to create the most positive change possible.

“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

- Peter Singer

We can all agree that quote rings true for everyone, but for many of us with disposable incomes it raises a problem – which charity should I donate to?

It’s easy to choose a charity based on our own biases, our likes and dislikes, our religious or political beliefs. The fact stands that some problems are much bigger, more neglected, and easier to solve. Effective altruism focuses on these types of problems, and in that way, far more progress is achieved, and it does so through a well-researched and scientific approach.

Researchers in effective altruism have found the following framework to be useful. Working on a cause is likely to be highly impactful to the extent that the cause is:

Great in scale

It affects many lives, by a great amount.

  • The question is: if we solved this problem, how much would the world become a better place?

Highly neglected

Few other people are working on addressing the problem.

  • We must ask: How many people, or dollars, are currently being dedicated to solving the problem?

Highly solvable or tractable

Additional resources will do a great deal to address it.

  • Level of solvability can be defined by asking: If we doubled direct effort on this problem, what fraction of the remaining problem would we expect to solve?
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For example, Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBRs) is more important than, for example, saving African elephants from poaching. Global catastrophic risks (GCRs) are roughly defined as risks that threaten great worldwide damage to human welfare, and place the long-term trajectory of humankind in jeopardy. These include natural or engineered pandemics such as The Black Death (1335-1355 CE) and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.
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While it may feel good to focus on African elephants, and the images of the cute elephants calves grazing in the savannah may entice you to give money to a charity of that type, effective altruism would take into consideration whether that donation would be highly impactful or not. And if not, would suggest you put your money towards a more impactful cause.

“Effective altruism … is matching a clear-eyed approach to doing good with scientific exactitude."

- Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic
It’s important to research the cause or charity. We are used to doing this research whenever we buy a new product or service. If you want to build a house, you’ll find a builder with good reviews, because in the end you just want the builder to do one thing: build effectively and efficiently. We have to apply the same research when choosing a cause, and we can do so by considering the three key points.

“Effective altruism — efforts that actually help people rather than making you feel good or helping you show off — is one of the great new ideas of the 21st century”

- Steven Pinker
If we have the power to help others- we have a moral obligation to do so. If we are going to make a change, we should try to make it as impactful as possible. Intuition alone is not a good guide, we need to consider the framework of scale, neglectedness and solvability when considering donating to a cause.

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